Gay Marriage and Male Friendship

Gay Marriage and Male Friendship February 7, 2012

This is a guest post for a debate on the consequences of gay marriage.  The opinions expressed below are fairly obviously not my own.  Oh, but I did do the pictures.

(Matt is rebutting this sign –ed)

This week at Yale an undergraduate organization known as Undergraduates for a Better Yale College is hosting Professor Anthony Esolen of Providence College. Picking up on one series of blog posts he wrote critical of gay marriage, the Yale community has begun to express outrage. A campus publication calls his work “vitriolic and outrageous,” and Ivy Gate claims that he authors “fanatical anti-gay tirades.” Perhaps my favorite reaction was a Facebook post from a reader of Esolen’s article that said “I skimmed for, like, a minute, and this has me all kinds of pissed.” So a big thanks to Leah for inviting me to actually consider the good Professor’s arguments, even if those whom I’d most like to hear it insist on plugging their ears.

In the series of blog posts that have been cited by his attackers, Esolen makes 10 (often closely related) arguments. Because I’m not necessarily interested in defending all of them and for the sake of time, I’m going to pick two that I think are among the strongest and most controversial. The first is #5: gay marriage will “curtail opportunities for deep and emotionally fulfilling friendships between members of the same sex,” developed beautifully in an earlier article here.  As the public acceptance of homosexuality increases, heterosexual friendships suffer among males in particular, an argument Professor Esolen developed in a much larger article available here. The second is #7, the claim that homosexual marriage “seals us in a culture of divorce.”

Each of these is compelling to consider because they strike at the most basic and popular rationale behind the legalization of gay marriage: the idea that it is totally laughable that gay marriage could possibly affect me or anyone else in a negative way. What possible harm does gay marriage do? If your religion disagrees, then don’t marry gays in your church and stop forcing America to bow to your beliefs. Disapprove of gay marriage? Then don’t get one, the saying goes.

Esolen counters with the idea that friendship tends to suffer when homosexual behavior is accepted as normal in society. This strikes most of our individualistic culture as quite absurd, but I think it follows quite easily from one simple observation about how social interactions work: we don’t usually get to determine the meaning of our actions. The meaning of an action is tied social norms and to that which is accepted by the community as something that may be done, even in private.

“Our sexual customs constitute a language, one that we must all use, whether we like it or not. If, all at once, clothing becomes optional on a certain beach, then that beach is a nude beach. If you wear your suit to that beach, your action has a meaning it did not have before. At the very least it means that you do not approve of public nudity. It may mean that you are ashamed of your body. It may mean that your religion forbids it. It may mean you are a prude. But it does signify something; and it must. You cannot say, ‘It means nothing to me,’ simply because language is by its nature public and communal. Suppose the incest taboo were removed. You may say, “I will hug and kiss my niece in any case,” but your actions will now have a significance they did not have before. The shadow of the thought must cross any beholder’s mind; it might cross the niece’s mind. If you were at all considerate of her feelings, you would hesitate before you did it.”

Taboos are useful in that the socially accepted prohibition of some action prevents other actions from being misinterpreted. Remove the taboo, and we start to question.

So if we agree with Aristotle that deep and meaningful friendships are an integral part of a fulfilled human experience, and if friendship is not just a state of mind but requires concrete actions, then we can at least agree that the public acceptance of homosexuality will drastically change forms male-to-male friendships take, as it already has. Emotions and actions as simple as long hugs or sharing a bed during sleepovers risk misinterpretation by not only the participants but also society at large. Esolen’s point is that this is not simply a matter of a bunch of “homophobes” fearing about their sons being gay- it’s actually built into the structure of all non-verbal language. And once the taboo has been removed, interpretive chaos erupts. Have strong feelings for a male friend? You might be gay! Sam and Frodo? Clearly gay. Abraham Lincoln slept in the same bed as another man!? Must have been a homo.

(Also, these guys — ed)

Anyone who has survived middle school knows how large a role struggles over identity and socialization play in developing young minds, and how confused one can get. Condoning homosexuality exacerbates all of those issues because it risks denying the awkward kid the one thing that can make that station of life bearable- a truly close friend. Anyone who doubts this should consider the way sexual interest creeps into many male-female relationships, often ending in great pain for one who has fallen romantically for the other, or at least confusion over intentions and actions that lead the two to back away from one another.

We are taught by the gay rights movement to think about the gay and lesbian kids who are mistreated or denied opportunities because of stigmas against homosexuality. No doubt stereotypes of homosexuality tethered with the generic cruelty of adolescence leaves many children hurt and confused. But Esolen points out the much less visible sufferers of a world in which homosexual behavior is celebrated:

“Reader, the next time you feel moved to pity the delicate man in the workstation near you, give a thought also to an adolescent somewhere, one among uncounted millions, a kid with acne maybe, a kid with an idea or a love, who needs a friend. Know then that your tolerance for the flambeau, which is little more than a self-congratulating cowardice, or your easy and poorly considered approval of the shy workmate’s request that he be allowed to “marry” his partner, means that the unseen boy will not find that friend, and that the idea and the love will die.”


This is a guest post. Check out the gay marriage debate series index to see followups by Matt and my responses.  Please note that Matt is a friend of mine, and I’ll attest to his character.  So be merciless on the facts and philosophy, but keep nastiness out of it.

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A terrible consequence of consequentialism

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  • Jess

    Matt, this is ridiculous. You’re saying that gay people can’t have fulfilling friendships with people of the same sex, which is empirically untrue. Further, you’re saying that the very knowledge that gay people are out there will prevent ANY people of the same sex from having friendships. This is also empirically untrue. You’re saying that someone might be accused of being gay for wanting to have a close relationship with someone of the same sex–AND THAT’S EXACTLY THE KIND OF STIGMA WE WANT TO END. In a world without homophobia, why would someone be so afraid of being mistaken for gay?

  • Patrick

    The relevant taboo to your argument is not the taboo against condoning same sex attraction. It is the taboo against acknowledging that same sex attraction exists. This is a pretty serious flaw, and a pretty obvious one at that.

    Grant for the sake of argument everything you’ve said above, except this point. Now imagine two cultures. In one, homosexuality is condoned. In the other, homosexuality is acknowledged as something that exists, but loathed. In which culture would strong male/male friendship be viewed as suspect, therefore making it hard for young men to make friends? Clearly the latter.

    • Patrick, your “clear” point here is incorrect. In Yemen, where homosexuals can be killed, male friends can be very affectionate. For a Westerner it seems downright weird to see men draped over each other. But they are never assumed homosexual, because that would be accusing someone of a death-worthy crime, which, with no evidence, it itself a serious crime.

      I make no defense of a culture which operates this way, but it does indicate you are wrong.

      • I’ll reduce my point. You “may be” wrong, because your point is relative and I don’t have data on the alternative. But at the very least, it is not as clear as you would like.

        • Patrick

          The taboo that is operating in his argument is the taboo against acknowledging that your male friend might be gay. It isn’t the taboo against approving of your male friend’s homosexuality. This isn’t an empirical point, its an analysis of the argument he’s making, and of which parts are doing what job. The point is quite clear.

          You do bring up an interesting side point on the operation of taboos against acknowledging disfavored groups. Generally it isn’t actually a denial of the sheer existence of such groups. Its a denial of the possibility that “good people” could be members of such a group. Its… something I’ve seen happen. “YOU’RE an ATHEIST? But you’re such a nice person!”

          But that’s not relevant to the argument he’s making. Its just an interesting fact about humanity.

        • Here’s some data on the alternative. I come from South Africa, we have a culture where homophobia is highly entrenched, and I grew up in boys boarding schools long before the acceptance of gay marriage in this country. Guys giving each other a hug; sharing a bed or holding hands immediately resulted in accusations of homosexuality and bullying.

          South Africa was, and still is, racially divided. While the white culture had the above reaction to guys touching each other, the black culture, equally unaccepting of homosexuality, has no negative interpretations of men hugging or holding hands.

          I think the fact that different cultures bound together by geography can have such different reactions to the same situation proves that the rejection of homosexuality has little to do with heterosexual men showing affection.

      • I am a Westerner.

        My male friends comfortably hug one another, sit on one another, and have even been comfortably naked together, without any accusations of being gay.

        So no, it does not seem downright weird to me to see men “draped over one another” in Western culture. The close male-male friendship can exist without the cost of homophobia – therefore that’s what we should be aiming for.

  • Esolen’s arguments are correct, but they are not of a sort that would convince someone to stop supporting gay marriage.

    For that matter, they’re arguments not really against gay marriage as such, but against the normalization or mainstreaming of homosexuality, of which the alteration of marriage laws is only a single aspect. Esolen and Matt are right that the prominence of homosexuality does sexualize some all-male spaces that used to be preserves of innocent fraternity. Bed-sharing is a great example of this — as would be locker rooms, or even Bert & Ernie’s apartment. It used to be that the sexualized all-male space was “marked,” and the unsexualized space was “unmarked.” So if I went into a gay bar, I could expect to be evaluated as an object of erotic interest, but if I went to an old-school gentleman’s club, or even stripped down in a locker room, the same would be shocking — because those spaces weren’t “marked” for sex.

    This has nothing to do with the moral status of homosexuality, just with its prominence in the public imagination. (A parallel example: these days, when thoughts of the Catholic priesthood and of child molestation are so closely connected in the popular imagination, a priest had better not complement a parishioner on her beautiful children, while a couple decades ago this might have been completely unremarkable.)

    However, while I think Esolen is correct, his argument does not refute the claims advanced by the defenders of gay marriage. So what if there were preserves of all-male fraternity that the moral acceptance of homosexual love makes impossible? So what if there was genuinely much to admire and cherish in such unsexed spaced? One can recognize that there were beautiful and pleasant aspects to something without mourning or preventing its passing (e.g. when watching Gone with the Wind, we can see the charm of the life of the slaveowning class without for a moment thinking it was worth the tremendous suffering that made it possible).

    Now I don’t think gay marriage is something we are bound in justice to permit — but if we were, the fact that it would make the world less charming or destroy institutions and customs of which we might cherish romantic ideas would be no reason not to allow it.

    • leahlibresco

      Just have to interject that, for women, there are no unsexualized spaces in public.

      • Katie

        Well, that’s not strictly true. The reason that a perfect analogue for the ideal un-sexualized old-school gentleman’s club might not exist for women is less that women might sexualize each other in locker rooms and more that they are invested in evaluating the sexual “quality” of other women (and themselves!) because of how tightly bound that is with their worth as human beings. Different can of worms.

      • Leah, you’re absolutely right. And if you cared as much about that as Esolen claims to about non-sexual male friendships, you’d want to denormalize heterosexual activity as well.

        My point is not that Esolen’s argument is at all adequate to refute arguments for gay marriage — I just wanted to point out (in vain, it seems, given some of your commenters) that the argument isn’t equivalent to gays = ick.

      • keddaw

        Male gay bars?

  • OK, first: Thanks to Leah for inviting this guest post. This is a good idea; it’s always good for people who hold one view on a controversial issue to see what the strongest arguments of the opposition are.

    Second: I hardly ever use this kind of language, but this is one of the biggest mounds of idiotic bullshit I’ve ever seen. Seriously – we have to outlaw same-sex marriage because it will make people suspect that same-sex friends might be gay? I mean really, what the fuck? (Also, why the focus on “male-to-male” friendships? Why isn’t this equally a concern for friendships between women? I’m not even going to get into the equally idiotic gender essentialism that doubtless lies behind that apparently unintentional slip.)

    I don’t know why I’m even bothering to write a rebuttal to this rank bigotry, but let’s start with the obvious: Outlawing same-sex marriage will do absolutely nothing to prevent people from suspecting that an intimate same-sex friendship is a gay relationship. The only way you could do that is by making everyone forget that gay people exist. In fact, if same-sex attraction was widely accepted and legally protected, there would be less reason for such suspicions, because people who were genuinely in a same-sex relationship would have no reason to hide it. It’s stigma, not acceptance, that makes people afraid to be thought of as gay, and it’s that stigma that this essay wants to perpetuate.

    • I think you made some good points here. I found the arguments a little thin myself. It’s a pity you called it “bigoted,” he was expressing a point, as an invited guest to provide a viewpoint. He provided something to get the discussion going, if anything he probably knows he’s defending a very difficult issue that is likely to get people backs up. I don’t think this is bigoted, I think refusing to discuss the issue on an interactive public forum would probably have been somewhat bigoted, since that would show that he wasn’t willing to put himself on the line, and give the other side something to argue with.

      Your argument was good without the ad hominum, rather leave it out next time.

      • Hear hear.

      • anodognosic

        I see no ad hominem in Adam’s comment. There isn’t even any sort of personal abuse. He calls the argument bigoted, which is different from calling a person bigoted. And he calls the argument bigoted based on its content, rather than dismissing it because it came from a bigoted person.

        And yes, calling an argument bigoted can be a conversation stopper, and that is a reason not to do it. But there are also compelling reasons to do it, like identifying bigotry when you see it.

        And yes, this argument is bigoted, because it springs from bigoted assumptions. It uses the weaselly expression homosexual behavior, which is about as red a flag as you can get for bigotry. It assigns blame to acceptance of homosexuality for something that is plainly a consequence of homophobia, and thus sides with the bigots. It calls for the denial of truth and suppression of a minority for the good of the majority. These seem pretty plainly bigoted to me, and it becomes pretty clear if you apply them to any racial or religious minority.

        So is it worthwhile to hear out the opposition, and look at the argument rationally, and only rationally? Sure. But sometimes, it pays to call a spade a spade.

        • On the original argument is an argument rather than a way to avoid one by fake moral outrage. It doesn’t seek to exclude any idea from consideration or from the public square (for example by labeling it a “bigoted assumption”). It isn’t hostile to those who disagree with it. It is, in other words not bigoted.

          The only way to call it so is redefining “bigoted” as a dysphemism for “socially conservative”. That usage is increasingly common, but it is also, well, bigoted.

          • anodognosic

            I wonder if you’d bat an eye at considering some ideas bigoted. Like, for example, that black people are natural slaves, that Jewish people drink the blood of Christian children, that women are naturally inferior and should submit to men all things. I don’t think you would lament the exclusion of these ideas from the public square. You might notice, too, that such ideas are unusually persistent even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them, so there comes a time when, yes, exclusion is appropriate.

            Why should these specific ideas be called bigoted? Let me count the ways. The term “homosexual behavior” is an implicit denial of homosexual orientation. When even the president of Exodus International says that “99.9%” of people don’t change their sexual orientation, then denial of sexual orientation is, simply put, bunk. I call insisting on a damaging lie in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary “bigotry”.

            But it’s clearer when you consider that this is an argument for maintaining a benefit for straight men at the expense of pushing a minority into persecution and invisibility (because, let’s be honest, this is not an argument against gay marriage; it’s an argument for a return to Victorian sexual morality). I don’t disagree that the change in straight male friendship may reasonably be considered a downside of gay visibility. But we would rightly consider bigoted any argument for a similar persecution of any religious or ethnic minority for the benefit of a majority.

            So yeah, there is a time to patiently argue against this sort of nonsense, and maybe now is the time. But there will come a time when this sort of argument will become as transparently hateful as defending the expulsion of all Jews to defend Christendom.

          • Well, re:”He said Jehovah” talk of homosexual behavior doesn’t deny the existence of homosexual orientation. Contrariwise it distinguishes the behavior from the underlying inclination precisely because that inclination is normally not chosen and therefore not culpable.

            As for the rest I think we have established what you think of people like me and what I think of you, and there isn’t much benefit in going on with that.

      • I realize my previous comment was somewhat of a PZ Myers moment, more so than is usual for me. But you know what? I stand by it.

        As I said, I’m willing to listen and engage the other side’s arguments on this issue, but I’m not willing to pretend that this is a bloodless, abstract theological debate. These things matter, in a very real and serious way, to me and to people I care about a great deal. To deny someone equality under the law, you need an extremely compelling argument. And Matt’s argument not only didn’t meet that standard, but frankly, it was ludicrous – that we need to deny gay couples the right to marry just so no one will mistake him for gay if he happens to hold hands with a male friend in public.

        And what heated my blood even further is the implication of this argument. Obviously, his desired outcome won’t be achieved if we merely outlaw same-sex marriage. The only way that could happen is if we agree, as a society, to forget everything we know about homosexuality – to pretend it doesn’t exist, to force all gay people back into the closet, to take away the right (whether through legal means or merely through social pressure) for them to express their viewpoint or to speak out about who they are. And Matt has essentially stated he agrees with this (as he said in a comment down below in the thread: “I do oppose the normalization of homosexuality in society”).

        Let me be blunt: That is vile, it is despicable, and it is outrageous. Notwithstanding Leah’s attestation of Matt’s character, anyone who would seriously propose this is a very bad person who deserves to be scorned and shamed.

        • What Adam Lee and anodognosic said above.

          The whole argument in the original post is just an attempt to justify persecution of anyone who’s not heterosexual in order to maintain what amounts to a benefit of convenience for heterosexuals — that people will always make a correct assumption about the nature of your relationship with someone of the same gender without you ever having to correct them.

          Once, when my brother and I were in high school, we were sitting on the bus going home. We don’t look alike and one of the other kids on the bus asked if we were boyfriend/girlfriend. We corrected the person. It wasn’t a big deal.

          Should I demand that heterosexuality not be considered normal due to this experience? Of course not.

  • Ben

    I went into this intending to heed Leah’s call to skewer the ideas, but I can barely stop laughing long enough to admit my failure.

  • Katie

    Huh. I didn’t know that my bisexuality precluded me from having any friends. Good to know.

    (In the spirit of real debate, however, I promise I’ll write a less dickish response when I have a little more time.)

  • Matt Gerken

    Just a couple of quick notes:

    Jess- I’m not making either of those claims at all. I am speaking about general societal trends and the way norms shape decisions and actions, not making absolute statements of logical impossibility. Of course if everyone in the world accepted homosexuality as legitimate, it’s perfectly possible for their to be fulfilling and platonic male friendships. It’s just that it would be harder to have that type of relationship as compared to a society in which there is a taboo against homosexuality.

    A couple people have raised the objection that the reticence for intimacy on the part of the males is just due to homophobia (“ewww, what if my friend in the bed next to me is GAY? I better sleep elsewhere”), and that since we should get rid of homophobia, public acceptance of homosexuality is exactly what we need. But you’re missing my analogy to the difficulties in male-female friendships. The awkwardness, the possibility of breakdown, and the emotional and physical distance that most of the time must be maintained is there all the time. And there’s clearly no “heterophobia” or hatred of straight relationships motivating it. It’s simply a logical consequence of accepted societal scripts and the desires of most people. So the homophobia reply seems irrelevant to me- the breakdown I’m describing would happen even in a gay rights utopia.

    Third: why not female-female relationships? I think Esolen and I both are avoiding that topic simply because we aren’t women and don’t have as clear an understanding about female-female friendships. I’m fairly agnostic about whether this type of argument would also apply to those relationships.

    Kevin- I agree that this isn’t really going to convince most people. I had a paragraph to that affect but I took it out to shorten the piece up. I think one could plausibly agree with the structure of this particular argument, say “so what? gays have a natural right to marry whoever they want, and so any harm to straight people is utterly irrelevant” and move along. They’d still be wrong, but we would have to unpack all sorts of metaphysical baggage to get them to move beyond that belief.

    • Patrick

      You’re right to correct people who have missed that aspect of your argument.

      But that aspect of your argument can be engineered around by just having a society where gay kids don’t feel the need to be in the closet. The ambiguity of potential sexual interest only exists if you don’t know who is or isn’t gay.

      My other comments still stand.

    • Matt – I think they key distinction you are missing here is that male-female relationships often have that awkwardness because both parties are potentially sexually interested in one another.

      In the case of a man who knows a friend is lesbian, the awkwardness is much less likely to arise. Why? Because he is significantly less likely to mis-interpret her friendly affection as romantic interest. A straight woman and a gay man, likewise.

      So, in the case of two men who know each other to be straight, the question of sexual interest will not arise. As such, the art of platonic same-sex friendship is hardly going to be lost from the earth now that we accept that gay people exist – and I fail to see how this argument relates to marriage specifically; it seems to be an argument opposed to homosexuality in toto, brought out in this case because gay marriage is a question of the moment.

    • Jay

      Matt, I think the biggest internal problem with this sort of argument is the first one Kevin mentioned — that it really doesn’t have anything to do with same-sex marriage in particular, but rather with the normalization of same-sex relationships in general.

      Suppose that homosexuality were considered perfectly normal, with no moral stigma attached, and that same-sex couples enjoyed most or all of the legal privileges that opposite-sex couples enjoy — but that their unions weren’t legally or culturally recognized as marriage. In that scenario, it seems like all of the issues you’ve identified — confusion over the social meaning of some behaviors, sexualization of certain spaces, etc. — still arise. Why does the additional recognition of marriage make these any more of a problem?

      If you really want to take this position seriously, it seems like you have to oppose the normalization of same-sex relationships generally, not just the specific recognition of same-sex marriage. And obviously that raises lots of additional problems — the idea that we should reject same-sex relationships entirely just so straight boys can sleep in the same bed without any social misunderstanding seems pretty absurd, even for opponents of same-sex marriage. I’d be curious to hear your response to this point, especially if you think this is a misinterpretation of Esolen’s position.

      • Matt Gerken

        This criticism is fair. And I agree- I do oppose the normalization of homosexuality in society. Part of the evidence for Esolen’s position here is that to a significant extent the changes have already occured. That’s why we all wonder whether Samwise is gay, and why everyone now reads Shakespeare’s sonnets as though he were obviously a homosexual.

        So how does this get us to an argument against gay marriage? Well, obviously laws send messages to society. It seems fairly obvious to me that laws and culture are a two way street: neither completely controls the other but neither are they easily shorn. Over time laws affect culture and culture affects laws. So legalizing gay marriage would be one of the (last, I admit) steps towards enshrining the normalization of homosexual behavior.

        • So in your worldview gay people are acceptable collateral damage?

          So that you can carry on innocently bunking up with your male friends, a whole portion of the population are to suppress their self-expression?

          Forgive me for finding that a little horrifying.

        • Jay

          I appreciate the response, and that you’re willing to bite the bullet and say that this marriage is only a small component of this argument. If I can push you a little further, however, doesn’t it seem like you would need more than just widespread rejection of homosexuality? Wouldn’t you actually need to get people to stop believing that same-sex relationships even exist in the first place, at least with the frequency that presently obtains? After all, whether or not homosexuality is “normalized,” there is still going to be homosexuality. And so long as people know that, there’s always going to be the possibility of confusion of the kind you describe as problematic.

          Taking a step back, I’d be curious at some point to see you sketch out your broader vision of how you think our society would ideally deal with this set of issues. If the ultimate take-away is that we need to stigmatize same-sex relationships generally and convince people that homosexuality doesn’t really exist at all, then I am highly skeptical that this is the strongest argument against same-sex marriage.

  • Ferny

    The obvious answer? A world where homosexuality isn’t taboo and homosexual desire is accepted, so that the “horror” of homosexual relationships between people is simply not something that’s in the minds of people when two males are engaging in homosocial activity.

    I see it happening in some of my students, who don’t really care if they are called gay, because it doesn’t bother them.

    Also, I’m bothered by the idea that this is the strongest argument, or rather, that this is argument I have to interact with, when it’s clearly not the one most people who oppose homosexual interactions are talking about. Though, again, looking at the post, it seems like homosexual interactions are the bigger taboo broken, not gay marriage.

    I would hope we don’t want to create a world where homosexual desire is once again repressed and ostracized.

    Now, as a final rebuttal, Matt, I think that male-male relationships in a world where homosexuality is completely non-taboo would be different than male-female because of the reality of potentiallity of reproduction and the reality of different sexes, in a way that homosexuality simply does not create those barriers.

  • The case presented here is a compelling one – the least hateful argument I’ve seen against gay marriage – but not a sound one.
    Firstly, If it society did not think it shameful to have same-sex attraction, then the threat of the homophobic gaze from society at large is effectively squelched.
    Additionally, I don’t see a threat to deep, fulfilling non-sexual homosocial relations. All I see is the need to be more honest with ourselves about the nature of those relations. Just as hetero men and women can be non-sexual friends as long as they are honest with themselves and one another, so can we all be friends in a society that embraces everyone’s right to love. If I am supposed to be concerned about the dissolution of certain of the invisible scripts that constrain all of our social and sexual interactions, then I’m sorry – I am glad for the opportunity to drop the cliches and relate from the heart.
    Lastly, legalizing something does not mean that society will embrace it wholeheartedly. Exemplo gratias, look at abortion, racial integration, interracial marriage, and even the separation of church and state – all legally binding but still vehemently opposed by frighteningly large slices of the population pie. Society is not a monolith – if you want your ‘no homo’ spaces, then you will still be able to find them, even if gay marriage becomes the law of the land from sea to shining sea.
    In closing, let’s not pretend that we can see in advance what society will look like after gay marriage is fully legalized and homosexuality is finally accepted as part of the norm, because frankly, no matter what stance we take on the issues, we cannot account for every possibility, and thus cannot predict the outcomes. I am sorry if I see human rights as a more important issue than culture, but our culture is constantly changing – these days it is changing faster than ever, and philosophy has a duty to aid in that evolution towards a freer, more just and equitable society, not just a society where one person’s top ten taboos are considered sacrosanct.

  • Touchstone

    Reposting a short discussion Matt and I had on Facebook, at Leah’s request. I wrote:

    Sexuality has changed a great deal over time. Contemporary heterosexuality is defined in opposition to homosexuality in a way that simply wasn’t true in, say, Greece. I think you’d agree that viewing Achilles and Patroclus as “homosexual” lovers in the contemporary sense of the term is an absurd and ahistorical reading. But it’s not absurd and ahistorical because they were “straight” and lived in a culture in which homosexuality as we understand it was unacceptable. Rather, it’s absurd and ahistorical because they lived in a culture in which the categories “gay” and “straight” as we understand them did not exist.

    I’m very sympathetic to the argument that social mores determine the meanings of cultural performances, but I have to wonder whether your argument doesn’t turn against you. That is, it seems that in cultures (like Greece) that didn’t define male desire for women to the exclusion of male desire for men, male friendship without any “gay panic” was eminently possible. It follows, perhaps, that “Emotions and actions as simple as long hugs or sharing a bed during sleepovers risk misinterpretation by not only the participants but also society at large” only if we continue to attach terrific normative meaning to the categories “gay” and “straight” rather than the more universal categories “sexual” and “non-sexual.” The way to get back to these simpler universals, and give Esolen’s “unseen boy” his friend back is to create a culture in which friendship vs. sexuality (rather than hetero- vs. homo- sexuality) is the binary that separates marriageable relationships from close friendships.

    Matt then replied:

    yes. Because there was no such thing as
    “homosexuality” in Greece, even though you are right that there was a lot
    of homosexual activity.

    I rejoined:
    Right, that’s exactly my point. And the non-existence of that category (and the resultant non-existence of a taboo against it) didn’t stop the Greeks from having both fulfilling male-male friendships and also (presumably) fulfilling male-male sexual relationships.

    This is why I find Matt’s response above unconvincing. Do not blame the failure to draw a satisfying line between sexual and non-sexual relationships on a lack of a taboo against sexual relations with one class of people. Indeed, the existence of taboo often exarcerbates sexual tension and desire (what you think drove people to seek out illicit interracial sex when anti-miscegination laws were in place?).

    • Matt Gerken

      Sorry, I didn’t see this whole post. School blocks FB so my reply was by e-mail from the notification, which only gave me the first two sentences or so. Let me think about this one some more.

  • butterfly5906

    I’m going to agree with the other commenters and say that this line of thinking is at best an argument against removing the taboo of homosexuality from our society. In fact, society would have to go further than just a regular “taboo” and think of homosexuality closer to the way it thinks of incest. While I’m aware that incest does exist, it is so disgusting and (in my mind, no idea about the actual statistics) so rare that it would never cross my mind that an innocent-looking hug was a sign of incest. This is the way we thought of homosexuality in the past, and was probably why no one would have accused Lincoln of being gay.

    However, in many parts of the world today (and some parts of America) there is both a taboo against and laws against premarital or extramarital heterosexual sex. But even with both of these in place, unmarried male-female friendships are still looked down upon and even actively stifled. People still have doubts about any man and woman spending too much time together, or having too much of an emotional connection and will doubt whether the relationship is truly platonic. Neither the laws nor the taboo banning premarital sex are enough to protect the people involved from these “interpretive doubts” because society is still aware that it happens sometimes. And if that “unseen boy” in your example wants to befriend a like-minded girl but cannot due to these doubts, that is truly tragic, but no one would consider outlawing or stigmatizing all heterosexual relationships to help him.

    The only way to help that boy is to get society at large to be more accepting and less stigmatizing, so that the value of having that friendship far outweighs any problems that may come of “interpretive doubts.”

  • anodognosic

    I think Esolen’s analysis is quite shrewd and informative, actually, but as far as I can see, it can only lead us toward further normalization of homosexuality, rather than the other way, for a couple reasons.

    First, this rescripting is quite obviously much more of a reaction, rather than a direct consequence, of increased visibility of LGBT folks. It seems pretty obvious that it is homophobia that invites this extremely heightened scrutiny of same-sex friendships, not because same-sex intimacy necessarily implies something sexual, but because it might. It is the overzealous, sex-obsessed puritanical and macho culture that policed same-sex intimacy to the point of repressing all non-homosexual intimacy pretty much out of existence.

    But okay, even without laying blame, we can take the point that increased visibility of homosexuality has changed perceptions of same-sex intimacy in this way, even if indirectly. But how is the answer not, for us as a society, to get over it? Queerness is gaining acceptance exponentially, so that the sting of calling someone “gay” is losing its force more and more–not just for out and proud queer folks, but for straight kids too. And once that loses its force, so does this self-consciousness about societal scripts. And that’s the point at which societal scripts can change.

    And just look at the alternative of bringing back the taboo on homosexuality. It would take far, far more than taking gay marriage off the table to change the scripts on same-sex intimacy. That cat’s been out of the bag for at least a century. What we’re talking about, let’s be clear, is reverting to Victorian sexual mores. Assuming that’s even possible, how long would it take us? Another hundred years? Is it really going to take that long for heterosexual same-sex emotional intimacy to find its place in a world of homosexual openness? And is it really worth it to force everyone back in the closet for this? At least, in the status quo, we have the advantage of honesty about human sexuality.

  • Davida

    So, I think one problem with the arguments against gay marriage here is premised on the assumption that either (1) people who tend to be attracted to those of the same sex are attracted to ALL members of the same sex or (2) everyone in society is going to assume that (1) is true.

    The reason I, as a heterosexual woman, have multiple very successful platonic relationships with hetero men is that there is an assumption that while I am attracted to some men, and the guy to some women, we are not attracted to each other. When I spend time in social groups with my close straight male friends, our body language tells others as much.

    This leads to my main point — I disagree with the idea that the social prohibition against one action prevents other actions from being misinterpreted. The reason I can hug or grab a beer with one of my very close straight male friends and not worry about anyone “misinterpreting” our actions is that there’s a societal assumption that if we WERE a couple, we would be signaling that in certain ways — holding hands, his arm around my shoulders, a peck on the lips. Since we do none of those things at any point during a social interaction, those around us assume that we are not a couple.

    In contrast, because of the social prohibition of homosexuality, gay couples do not “signal” their coupledom in many public places. Two men sitting next to each other in a sports bar could be gay, but afraid to express their affection because of the stigma and fear of retaliation. If homosexuality were societally accepted, it would be much clearer who is and isn’t a couple — gay couples will “signal” their relationship in public the same way straight couples do, by holding hands and kissing. If anything, it would strengthen platonic male friendships because they would begin to parallel platonic male-female friendships — if people see that you two are close but not physically signaling “coupledom,” they will assume that you are indeed platonic.

    The real problem here is that people see being perceived as gay as an insult, or something to be feared. It’s not. Let’s pretend for a minute that being perceived as gay has no social stigma whatsoever.

    There are two men in a close friendship. Let’s examine the possible scenarios. 1. Both men are actually straight.Other people assume they are gay; they brush it off because while untrue, it’s not insulting. Not a big deal.

    2. Both men are gay but just not interested in each other. Again, just friends. Not a big deal.

    3. Now let’s imagine that one of the men in the relationship IS in fact attracted to the other, but the interest is for whatever reason unrequited (either the other man is straight, or he too is queer but uninterested). He realizes that his friend doesn’t return his interest. It’s disappointing, to be sure, but like all mature adults he gets over it and moves on with his life, and continues the friendship. I think most of us straight folk have had male-female friendships in which one person developed an unrequited sexual attraction. Most of us have managed to move past it and save the friendship; same-sex couples would be no different in a world where homosexuality isn’t shamed and stigmatized.

    4. Both men are actually attracted to each other. A relationship develops — woo-hoo!

    I think the real problem Esolen has hit on isn’t homosexuality, it’s homophobia.

  • Davida

    Also, the argument that “middle school kids get teased for being perceived as X, therefore we should ban/stigmatize X” is a pretty self-evidently silly argument. I got tormented horribly for being perceived as a nerd, and for a while I avoided nerdy things to fit in. Does that mean we should stigmatize or prohibit nerdiness? Of course not. The problem wasn’t me, or my perceived nerdiness (whether real or imagined) it was the assholes in my homeroom.

  • Heartfout

    Okay. Before I make this comment I would just like to point out that I am asexual, and so therefore have very little direct experience with these matters. However, I do not think this will stop my argument being valid (it being based around observations of people of different genders around me).

    This argument rests on several assumptions that, as far as I can see, are empirically wrong. The first is the idea that if you are attracted to one sex, you must be attracted to all members of that sex. I suggest that if you support this claim, you try taking a representative sample of the sex you personally are attracted to, and see if there are any members you do not find attractive.

    The second assumption that is made is that it is better to not know if someone was attracted to you. In the case of you hugging your niece above, there is nothing to stop her worrying that you are sexually attracted to her. This does not require a taboo on incest, but rather it requires her to know that incest exists. Likewise, the worry that a same sex friend may be gay (may I enquire as to the focus on male relationships in this piece? Why was this focus chosen?) does not require a taboo on homosexuality, but rather the knowledge that some people are attracted to the same sex as they are.

    The final assumption this piece seems to rest on is the idea that opposite sex relationships can’t form because they are attracted to each other. This may be a statistical anomaly due to the sample size I am working with (people I know)…but I can’t say I have observed this, and the people (heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual) I have asked about this since writing the article haven’t either. I’m not sure where the writer of the argument is coming from, but the knowledge that the person we are talking to may be attracted to us, or even knowing that they ARE attracted to us in some cases isn’t really an issue. Perhaps we are able to accept that people are attracted to us, or that we are attracted to people, without wishing to do the deed? This argument seems rather sex obsessed, to be perfectly honest.

    Even given that I don’t think the assumptions of the argument are valid, I really don’t see what the last paragraph has to do with it. Gays can’t form friendships with straight people? If we allow gays to marry, they’ll stalk bullied kids and kidnap any potential friends (but only same sex friends, since we can’t have opposite sex relationships that are as deep as same sex ones because *insert assumption number 3*)? What is it trying to say exactly?

  • David

    Going off what Davida said, I want to explicitly question the assumption (which most commenters on either side have taken for granted) that potential sexual tension prevents male-female friendships from becoming as deep as male/male ones. I’m a straight man and, like Davida, some of my closest friends are straight members of the opposite sex. In fact, I have a couple of female friends who I trust as much and am as open to as any of my male friends (including about issues and anxieties related to sex, relationships and the like, which I presume are the sort of issues normally assumed to be most off limits between platonic friends of the opposite sex). In my experience, the sorts of conversations that only happen among men are the sort of conversations that no one should be having, usually involving objectification of women and macho bullshit of various sorts. So if the great harm done by open homosexuality is to make male-male friendships more like male-female friendships, then I really don’t see the problem. Anyone who does should probably think about why they are unable to interact with members of the sex they are attracted to without some sort of sexual tension making real, committed friendship possible.

    Obviously I have, at various points, been attracted to close female friends, and that attraction not being returned has made those friendships less close and less completely open than other friendships. But the issue was attraction to a specific person – the general possibility of attraction has never posed any issues. And this is true even though (unlike Davida, it seems) I have been mistaken (although only by strangers) as being in a relationship with a woman who was actually just a friend. But it certainly didn’t impact the quality of the friendship in the least, nor is there any reason it should.

  • Should have bet that people would be screaming and scoffing instead of thinking. Makes me think John C. Wright is pretty much right about the fetishes of who he calls Leftists and PC-niks.

    That said, as a sane person I do not find this argument terribly compelling. It boils down to, “Think of the change it would effect,” without showing that this change is:

    1. Irrevocable
    2. Damage
    3. To a uniquely desirable thing
    4. Which can have no equal.

    Slavery was a universal human institution which was, in an attenuated way, desirable. It was without equivalent, and abolition was irrevocable damage to this institution. Abolitionists had to prove the case to the world that it did more harm than good, that it was not in fact desirable and so that the transient culture shock would be worth it.

    As per male-male friendships, there is already self-correction being made, so the weakness in your case is not Nos. 3 or 4 but 1 and 2. You have yet to prove that there is any damage being done at all, or that it is not irrevocable. Or have you never heard, “no homo”?

    I look forward to reading a defensible argument, anticipated in your “it seals us in a divorce culture.”

  • Frankly, this obsession with homosexuality is like what Mark Twain said of the Jews, at least the first quotable bit.

    If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.

    This comparison breaks down at the point of, “They have produced more than their lot,” and maybe even these days at the point of “persecution,” especially in American pop culture, which makes a point to represent The Gay Guy in a flaming caricature in all things.

    I’d have forgotten about it if there weren’t so many agitators reminding us. Smacks of a diva-like self-obsession. To illustrate: I had a friend come out to me. I vocally shrugged. He was, at first, offended — right up until he realized that this was exactly what his rhetoric said he wanted.

    • I should not have written in a moment of frustration. I apologize for my tone.

      I loathe diva-like pride wherever I see it, especially in the mirror.

  • keddaw

    I applaud most of the arguments laid out against this piece, especially the fact it has literally nothing to do with marriage.

    There are arguments against gay marriage however, in the interests of fairness I shall attempt to lay them out here.

    Assuming legal marriage, in all its forms, conveys (state provided) legal, financial and medical benefits to married people then expanding the marriage pool to include gay people further harms and discriminates already put upon groups such as singles, the polyamorous and those unwilling/unable to get married. By increasing the number in the advantaged group you not only proportionately increase the burden on those left behind, you also make it that much harder to change the unfair system of privilege overall. The gay movement was a vocal and well organised movement with enough people to make a stir, where are singles, people who don’t agree with marriage or, especially, polyamorous people going to get their voices heard?

    Gay people at least had an equivalence to aim for in married people without kids, polyamorous don’t even though they’re looking for similar rights. Unmarried people are looking simply not to be burdened by marred people which is never going to pass because married people cannot see the privilege they have and have no wish to give it up even if they do – and they are the vast majority.

    So the (best secular) argument against gay marriage is not based on any of the ideas presented above but on an equal treatment for all by the state argument.

  • Thomas R

    Although I find this interesting, and I’ve come a bit against same-sex marriage, I wonder if this is maybe implying or assuming things that are probably incorrect.

    One: That certain physical displays of affection are necessary to have a friendship.

    Two: That same-sex marriage means or implies an assumption that no one is truly heterosexual unless they somehow prove it.

    One doesn’t seem to be right. Physical affection varies by culture. The Japanese are generally low in touching, but I don’t know that this means Japanese people don’t have friends. Maybe not a great example. How about Americans? We are not a very physically affectionate people. Same-sex kissing I don’t think was particularly popular even in the 1950s. I don’t think this means Americans didn’t have same-sex friendships.

    Two could look true as on TV it’s common to joke that every guy is a little gay. But I don’t think this is the reality. I don’t think most people think that every guy would have same-sex encounters or romance if it weren’t for “the taboo.” I think most people think that most guys have no interest in that and would still likely think a guy is straight unless he “acted stereotypically gay” or said he was gay.

  • deiseach

    State of matters to date in Ireland: in 2010 we passed an act permitting civil unions of same-sex couples and giving certain rights to cohabiting couples (whether same- or opposite-sex) who were neither married nor entered into a civil partnership. While I would be in favour of civil unions, because I think that is a matter of natural justice (and not just for same-sex couples: civil unions for all!), I think that it has to be acknowledged that same-sex marriage is going to mean a change to the definition of marriage as it has always been known.

    Whether you think that’s good or not, whether you think that’s necessary or not, I don’t think anyone can really argue that it’s all going to be the same as before and same-sex marriage is just the same as opposite-sex marriage. For instance, access to adoption, or the practice of what I consider the exploitation of Third-World women – I’m thinking of a story (and drat it, why the heck didn’t I keep the link?) about a gay couple and their new babies, a gushing story of admiration and ‘isn’t it so wonderful?’ where we found out that the men had used an agency for surrogacy where donor ova were inseminated using semen from both partners, implanted into two different surrogate mothers (because they wanted ‘twins’, so to speak) and then when the pregnancies had advanced to the stage when the embryos were viable, it was discovered that both women were carrying twins (for a total of four babies in all).

    This, of course, was down to the practice of assisted fertility clinics of multiple embryo implantation to raise the chances of a successful pregnancy. In order not to have four babies, selective reduction (that is, abortion of one of each pair of twins) was used. And we get a fluffy-bunny story in the newspaper about the happy couple and their lovely babies and we are all supposed to be delighted because who could possibly object, and nothing – not a whisper of contrary opinion – about rich Westerners buying and selling human life, ordering their perfect family like options from a restaurant menu, and the risks to the health and lives of the poor women who are used by the agencies as brood mares.

    So Bill and Ben’s marriage is not the exact same thing as Jack and Jill’s marriage (unless Jack and Jill are engaging in the same exploitation, which I condemn whether it’s same-sex couples, opposite-sex couples, or single men/women engaging in it).

    • anodognosic

      It is wrong to call you bigoted for failing to consider the possibility that Bill and Ben might not be engaged in this kind of exploitation?


      • This. What anodognosic said.

        Underlying the argument made by deiseach above is that somehow exploitation is inherent and inevitable in a homosexual person having a child, which isn’t the case. What if the surrogate was a friend of the couple who agreed voluntarily, not someone being exploited? What if they adopted instead?

        Yes, the exploitation of women in other countries is horrible. Guess what? It’s horrible when anyone does it, not just when gay people do it. The people who are being hurt are being hurt regardless of the sexual orientation of the person taking advantage. At the end, you (deiseach) acknowledge that a heterosexual couple could be doing the same thing. So, why is this, in any way, an argument against non-heterosexuals?

  • Jonas

    As someone who lives in a place where homosexuality is not a big deal; male friendship is doing fine. Straight guys can even be friends with openly gay guys and no one thinks anything of it. You’d be surprised how little people care about sexual orientation if they weren’t raised to think it was evil.

  • Heinrich Kruger

    The argument is based on a false premise, namely that social acceptance of sexual relationships between members of group A and group B (where A may equal B), sexualises all relationships between members of A and B. There’s an easy counter example. Sexual relationships between unrelated men and women are not at all taboo, yet not all relationships between men and women are sexual. Many (most?) people have close friends of the opposite sex. In western cultures it is common for friends of opposite sex to greet with a hug and/or kiss without anyone interpreting it as sexual or suspecting that they’re anything more than friends. It is even possible for a man and woman to sleep in the same bed in a completely non-sexual way and without anyone interpreting it as sexual in any way. Social (and legal) acceptance of gay marriage would have no more impact on non-sexual same sex relationships than the acceptance of heterosexual marriage has on non-sexual male-female relationships.

    Even if we do accept the premise though, the argument is still not valid, as it relies on the stigma attached to homosexual relationships. As other commenters have already pointed out, if there is no stigma to homosexual relationships, there would be no need for anyone to hide their homosexuality and thus no reason for anyone to avoid close same sex relationships for fear of being suspected of homosexuality.

  • Robert Tunney

    You think this is one of the strongest arguments against gay marriage? Back up for a second. Gay people can’t get married because then straight people can’t have same sex friendships. Really? Really???

    When I was in middle school, people used to think I was dating my female friends all the time. It didn’t stop me from being friends with them. I simply clarified that we were not dating.

    This is like Maggie Gallagher’s argument that gay people can’t get married because then the culture will change and men will no longer stay married to their wives. You can put a lot of confounding words to it, but when you state the argument in brief it’s clear that it makes no sense at all.

  • David

    Matt’s argument: meet actual sociological research:

  • Xanidan

    I disagree.

    Let us contrast theory with reality in post-homophobic societies such as that of Britain.

    In many Britsh schools,boys are no longer afraid of showing affection or of forming close bonds with members of the same gender.

    Generally,the less homophobic a boy is,the more comfortable he is being friendly and affectionate with other males.

    This shift in attitudes has been attributed to a reduction in homophobic mentality:

  • Liz

    Man, you people are really grasping at straws these days, aren’t you? Have fun over there on the wrong side of history.